Rethinking Belonging as a Group Effort: Who Needs What to Be Truly Safe?

Belonging has to do with a profound paradigm shift, toward the self-understanding that we are all responsible for and dependent on each other.

by Sohra Behmanesh, January 27, 2022

In this column, presented in collaboration with our friends from Wildling Shoes, we want to give more space and visibility to the issues of anti-discrimination, belonging, and intersectionality in the workplace. Through articles, interviews, and diverse perspectives, we aim to both challenge and inspire those working in the impact sector - while encouraging them to create authentically lived workspaces that foster more belonging and less discrimination. By gaining new perspectives and engaging in a shared dialogue, we can take a collective step toward radical systems change in the impact sector - from "power over" and "power for" to "power with." 

Our columnist for 2022 is Sohra Behmanesh. She lives with her family in Berlin, works as a freelance anti-racism trainer, and finds caring and empathy just as superb as intersectionality. 

Photo credit: Kris Wolf

Hi, I'm the new one here! And I'd like to talk to you about something - about what belonging has to do with discrimination and touchability at the same time. And how together we can make sure that we don't have to be so damn brave all the time.

Many years ago, at the time I was just starting to explore nonviolent communication, I was trying to figure out what was bothering me about the question, where are you from? Someone empathically asked, are you concerned with belonging?

No, I said - and I believed it. It took me quite a while to realize that in reality I had simply not allowed myself to believe that it could be about belonging. 

There was a shame in me about being so needy. And my inner judge didn't agree that the needy part of me wanting something that I, as a Brown woman in Germany, was denied again and again - belonging. She would have preferred it to be about something cooler, something along the lines of sovereignty and independence - after all, that's what matters, right? To rise above it? But... what does it actually mean to rise above it?

To rise above the fact that my belonging in the society in which I spend my life is on highly shaky ground requires me to pretend that it doesn't affect me, that I don't care. To raise above it requires me to deny that I crave belonging. Coolness - this form of untouchability is ultimately a protective measure, a coping strategy, when we don't want to show ourselves in our vulnerability, in our natural and highly human neediness, because we can't trust to be safe and protected unless we protect ourselves. 

But nothing against coping strategies! I am convinced coping strategies are our friends. They may be the kind of friend who doesn't always have the best ideas, and sometimes their ideas even backfire proficiently - but their intention is sincerely loving and caring, and they are right there when the worst comes to the worst. Coping strategies mean well for us.

And if I casually deny that I long for belonging, then I don't have to witness that no one really cares about what I need. When I casually deny my need to belong, it allows me to not have to feel the full force of the pain of not getting what I need. The coping strategy brings my vulnerability, that soft, sensitive part of me, into safety in a firm, hard cocoon. At this moment my good friend coping strategy is the protector of my dignity. 

However, the whole thing comes at a cost. In the cocoon, our vulnerability is fixed, so to speak, and we can't get to it again so quickly. The cocoon makes us less vulnerable, but it also makes us less approachable. It hardens us. And cherry picking is not. If we make sure we don't feel our pain, we don't really feel ourselves or the world in any other way. 

And what interests me - is there really no alternative? It's clear that people with different positioning in society need different conditions in order to be safe. My utopia is that we ask ourselves with sincere interest and concretely, both on a small and a large scale: Who needs what in order to be so safe so that we can lower our protective shields? Who needs what to be able to stay in touch with their own vulnerability, with their own softness? How can we help create the conditions for that?

For example, it is not possible for me to feel safe in a space where I am the only non-white person and where there has been no sensitization to the fact that racism is real and also works in this space because it works in every space - in order to feel safe, I need strategies to be thought out in advance on how to protect me from it and how to repair damage done to me by racist incidents. Diversity alone is not enough - and this is also relevant for our work spaces. Who are they designed for, who has a chance to be there at all? And what do people with disabilities, with chronic or mental illnesses, trans people or parents need in order to truly belong and be thought of in their workplace beyond mere participation? Are the chairs in the office appropriate for the fat person who was newly hired or do they have armrests? Is care taken not to schedule important meetings late in the afternoon so that the part-time, single parent colleague doesn't miss out? How much energy do marginalized people have to put up with circumstances in which the reality of their lives is not taken into account - and is there no other way?

I occasionally give seminars in empathic parenting, based on nonviolent communication, mindfulness and attachment. And again and again I find that what our children need from us parents is not very different from what we adults need from each other. And in fact, one of the central guiding questions of my parenting is, "What does my child need to stay connected to his softness? What can I do so that my child does not have to be brave in situations where it is also possible for him to feel safe, secure and held? How can my child grow up trusting that they doesn't have to earn their belonging?" 

The theme of belonging has been working in me for so long, and I often stumble upon it, for example, in one of my most important teachers Tara Brach, and because "belonging" has "to long for" in it, and because I find it so courageous and at the same time indispensable to confess one's own longing for belonging, because it presupposes the readiness for vulnerability and touchability, and because "belonging" is precisely the response to and the satisfaction of this longing. 

The opposite of belonging is separation and ultimately loneliness. And I see that there is actually an epidemic lack of this real, secure belonging everywhere; a lack of this self-understanding that we are part of something and only function as a whole in such a way that we can all live in fulfillment and security.

Belonging, for me, has to do with a profound paradigm shift, toward the self-understanding that we are all responsible for and dependent on each other.

And with understanding the magnitude of the dimensions of these separations: our separateness from our own touchability, from the humanity of our counterparts and that of our fellow human beings on other parts of the planet, from participation and distributive justice for all people, from nature, from the animals that are our fellow inhabitants on this planet. 

The question of belonging is closely linked to care, to community - and also to the assignment of value and importance. Whose lives are valuable enough to be self-determined and protected? What about the White* sailors in distress at sea who are rescued with a large-scale operation, and what about institutionally coordinated pushbacks of boats with Brown* and Black* refugees? What about the animals we eat even though what happens to them is not at all consistent with our values? What is going wrong with prioritizing the climate crisis? And on the interpersonal level, how do which mistakes affect our belonging, our value to those around us? How formative are the webs of personal inadequacy and inferiority to our sense of self? And separation everywhere. Belonging, on the other hand, in short supply. Let's talk about it more often. 

Belonging then. Phew, that churns and yearns and works in me! Hello, I am Sohra Behmanesh, the new columnist here. And I'm really up for writing for you and to you! You can follow my other digital activities here:

*Note: I capitalize White, Brown, and Black in these particular contexts to make it clear that we are not talking about actual color adjectives and descriptions of skin tone, but rather locations in the racialized social fabric.